‘Caring is what I do, but it’s not what I am’
- Credit: Picture: DANNY LOO
As a former project manager, Norman Phillips is used to difficult decisions and tough situations. But now as a full-time sandwich carer, the 67-year-old has had to accept coping with chaos, rather than managing it.
A faint chemical smell drifts into a Stevenage living room. The sounds of Countdown are drowned out by booming chimes of the clock in the corner.
The phone suddenly goes off and Barney, the family dog, is still barking after the doorbell rings.
"Crisis never comes in one," Norman chuckles.
Full-time care for a loved one can be difficult. But, managing the lives of both your wife and your mother has been Norman's reality for the last two years.
Norman's wife Rosamund, 69, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis more than 20 years ago. His mother Noreen, 89, has heart issues and was diagnosed with Alzheimer's 15 months ago.
"When you're a carer, it's like being given a jigsaw puzzle to reassemble. But you've got no picture," says Norman.
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He has got used to early starts. Norman stays with his wife until the early afternoon, then checks up on his mum who lives around the corner.
Norman says: "You get to the point where you have no life. It's now making sure they're both looked after.
"You spend years fighting, arguing. It's just not nice. I've had to reach a level of acceptance."
Ros sits upright in her specially-designed wheelchair, smiling and ocassionally correcting her husband. Noreen has left her hearing aids at home, and is stuck with entertaining the dog.
Ros' days are filled with hospital appointments and people popping in and out. There are four separate carer visits each day, helping her get up, wash, eat and providing company.
Norman is still learning to accept being called a carer. He says he often feels resentment, anger and depression.
"It's dehumanising. I'm a husband to Ros, and a son to mum. Caring is what I do for them, but it's not what I am."
It wasn't always this way. The walls of the house are adorned with smiling faces and happy memories.
Talking about their wedding day 47 years ago, Norman describes it "as quite an event". Ros mutters "it was different".
'Chalk and cheese' is an understatement according to Norman. They met in London - Ros was a telephone operator, and Norman was the engineer's apprentice.
Since then, the pair have lived abroad and travelled the world together.
They giggle with each other. Stories of rum-filled evenings, Ros getting locked in a house in Sweden and grand tours across America spill out.
But things took a turn for the worst in the early 2000s.
As a manager at Fujitsu, Norman was used to working 50, 60 sometimes even 70 hour weeks.
Ros' health significantly deteroriated in 2003, and Norman started managing her increasingly demanding care by himself.
Norman admits it all became too much. In 2008, he had some serious health scares.
"I was wandering down the street, and next thing I remember I woke up in Lister Hospital," he said.
"They told me that I can't keep living this lifestyle. No-one can live like this."
After this incident, Norman took early retirement and became Ros' primary carer.
But the problems didn't stop there. Their borrowing grew and they remorgaged the house to pay for care costs.
After their debts had spiralled out of control, they were forced to sell their house.
Norman thinks it's difficult to say what the highs of caring are. He says keeping Ros out of a nursing home has been one of the little victories - Ros nods in agreement.
Norman finds it easier to describe the lows. The lack of sleep, the frustration, poor communication and feeling like a failure all get to him.
But worst of all? Norman says it has been almost impossible to encourage Ros to get out of the house.
Both he and Ros live with constant worries, and have been concerned about what comes next for a long time.
Ros says: "Living with MS, you don't know what's going to happen."
Norman agrees: "You live day by day. That's one of the hardest things."
Although Norman's breaks are few and far between, he helped organise events to coincide with Carers Week, which ran from June 10 to 16.
A walk for carers which raised almost £1,000 for Carers UK set off from Costello's Cafe at Fairlands Valley Park in Stevenage on Saturday, June 15.
If you provide care for someone and would like advice or to learn more about how Carers in Hertfordshire can help, call 01992 586969 or email firstname.lastname@example.org You can also find out more at www.carersinherts.org.uk.